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Sharpe's Price

I can't give you a vaction, but I can make you an icon and write you a story.






Sharpe's Price

*

Harper distrusted the sky. There were no storm clouds, no warnings of bad weather; but an odd haze thickened the light, made it too red, and he thought it unlucky. He fretted about it in his mild way, following Major Hogan and Lieutenant Sharpe to a meeting on the edge of an olive grove, a meeting that began anxious and turned fractious. There had been a long search; actions had been decided; dangers assessed; permissions refused; and now Sharpe had to take care of another dirty situation at Sir Wellesley's behest.

This time it was the young cousin of a Scottish merchantman that Sharpe dashed after, goaded on by Hogan to look after her and be sure to bring her cousin -- especially his pack mule -- safely to me. Harper suspected it was the mule, no doubt loaded with secret papers, that Hogan cared about most, but he knew for sure Hogan mentioned the young, comely, female cousin of the Scottish merchantman to properly stir Sharpe to do his duty. The girl, Leslie Kinnear, was stubborn, pretty, skinny, and in danger, exactly the combination Sharpe liked best, a failing that Hogan knew exactly how to exploit. Harper disapproved of both their motives concerning the girl, though he would not tell either so baldly.

Harper and Hogan watched Sharpe walk alone through the olive trees, both silent because the parting had been tense. They stood together on a knoll long after the trees hid him, straining their ears for anything and then finally, finally relaxing, moving their feet, stretching, making small unguarded noises before acknowledging the moment had come for conversation. Not that Harper wanted to begin: he was angry, with Hogan and with Sharpe.

"No musket fire -- a good sign."

"I doubt French spies would be hiding in the woods since they know about that grand old house, sir."

"It's not the French spies I'm worried about," said Hogan. "The woods could easily have been littered with Napoleon-loving Spanish."

Harper frowned. It was true. Word reached Hogan that a local group of anfrancesados had offered to help the French spies track down and capture the merchant and his young cousin, information he had told Sharpe, and Sharpe had shared with Harper. It worried him. Fighters in the guerrilla, the little war, were tough and vicious.

"But so far my hunch plays true. This could go quickly," said Hogan. "Or not. Either way, since it's Sharpe, whatever happens won't be what anyone expects."

"Which is only what you always ask of him, sir."

"Which is only what he knows how to deliver, Sergeant. He's made unorthodoxy his style." He fished in his pocket and drew out his snuffbox.

"Let me follow him, sir. I'm too far away to help if he needs it."

"He ordered you to lead the men round to the other side and meet him on the outward road." Hogan balanced a pinch of snuff on the back of his hand, seemingly absorbed, but Harper caught him peering at him knowingly. Harper was generally a happy man, placid except in battle, and he didn't often brood, but he brooded now. Sharpe had refused his help and finally ordered him to stay, a direct order given firmly, and the order hurt. And now Hogan watched him when his face felt heavy with a frown, caught out.

Harper forced himself to relax and smile. He wasn't without means, and there was still time. "So he did, but you outrank him, sir. If you ordered me after him I'd have to obey."

"True." Hogan sniffed deep. "But what if I ordered you to stay with the men, as he asked?" His eyes watered, and he sneezed like a gunshot. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" He dabbed at his nose. "Would you obey my orders then?"

"You said yourself going alone was fool's errand, sir."

"Maybe a fool's errand is the only thing that will answer. Did you ever consider that?"

"We've done more foolish things than a hundred men, sir," said Harper, "but we did them together."

"Sharpe managed plenty of mischief alone in India, most of it foolish as only an ambitious young man can make it." Hogan turned away and walked to his horse on the other side of the knoll, Harper hurrying in his wake, worried he had pushed too hard. "However, he's not young any more, is he?" Hogan put his foot in the stirrup and heaved into the saddle with a grunt. "God knows I haven't been young in a long time. Not that age stops me from occasional foolishness."

"Sir?"

Hogan gathered his reins and looked down at Harper. "Send your men round to rendezvous on the outward road. You follow Sharpe and make sure he doesn't do anything so foolish he can't get himself out again."

"Sir! Thank you, sir," said Harper.

"And above all, don't forget the pack mule."

"The pack mule, of course. Sir." Harper grinned, his thoughts racing ahead to the men, their orders, and then tracking Sharpe through the olive trees.

Hogan turned the horse, blocking his way off the hillock and abruptly recalling his attention. "Don't expect many thanks on his part. Sharpe doesn't know how to be cared for, so he gets angry instead."

"Sir?" said Harper, first confused, then bristling at the presumption. Who had known Richard Sharpe longer? They'd shared battles and countless night skies, helped each other cheat death, gotten dead drunk together. Like the other Rifles Sharpe was closer than family, and Harper resented Hogan's glibness. "Sir!" But Hogan turned away and kneed his horse to a trot.

*

Sunlight slanted through the trees by the time Harper reached the wall marking the end of the olive grove. He had sent the Rifles the long way round, to wait on the main road leading through the only gate. The heat of summer had eased a little, weaker as the days shortened, and walking in the trees was pleasant. They had gone cheerfully enough, though one or two of the brighter lads had given Harper a questioning glance. They knew the situation was direr than the quiet of a mellow afternoon promised. But Harper just nodded, a promise and a reassurance, and bade them go. Now, alone, Harper climbed over the stone wall and soon he found the house and stables, which like the wall were all shabby, all in poor repair. Not that Harper could boast. He, the Rifles, and even Sharpe himself were seedy, patched, ragged, more disheveled than the house, but their weapons were clean and in perfect working order -- a deadly force of men, whether they looked fine or no. Harper hoped the house wasn't as deceptive: it could be full of French for all he knew. Not that he would back down.

A bird called, and Harper cocked his head, listening. He heard it again, turned his face to the sound, and smiled before he gripped his rifle, buoyed with confidence. Bent low, moving silently, he followed a scraggly hedge to the house and crouched under a window. Indistinct noises came from deeper in the house: voices, something heavy being moved. He settled on his heels, patient and ready, uncertain what transpired in the house but sure that he would recognize when he would be needed.

A rifle cracked, muffled by the walls and closed doors in the house; a woman screamed; and Harper climbed in the window. "God between us and evil," he muttered, "but you didn't take long to get in trouble, now, did you?"

He held his seven-barreled gun ready as he padded through the house unerringly -- more screams, and shouting; the brittle tinkle of broken glass -- glancing quickly round corners and up and down hallways, but he met no one. At the front of the house double doors trembled with the violence inside. Harper recognized Sharpe's shout, knew he was furious or in pain, and as a woman shrieked again he kicked the doors. They opened fast and wide, hitting the walls on either side, but Harper didn't notice the crash. He caught an impression of heavy late day sunlight on people struggling, movement seemingly everywhere, shirts flung in the air and Sharpe in the middle of it all, swinging his rifle like a club. Movement to his right made Harper turned his head a little and he saw the mouth of a musket. Sharpe's cry came just as the stabbing flame reached for Harper and pushed him into sudden, silent twilight.

*

The girl's voice drove slowly into Harper's ears like twin bayonets exquisitely honed, pushing deeper and louder even as vision returned to him: black to gray to throbbing color, and he saw Sharpe standing above him, leveling the seven-barreled gun across the room and shouting angry demands. Sense returned to Harper fully and with it an instant, brittle awareness of the moment. Sharpe's rifle lay on his gut, reeking of powder, spent. The merchant, Kinnear, fairly danced in agitation to one side, and mostly blocked by a long dining table Harper could see the young Leslie, still shrieking to raise the dead, flanked by a man and two women. The man gripped her by her upper arms, one woman held a long knife pointed at the girl's throat, and the other woman was the one who had shot Harper; she held her still-smoking musket in one hand. Recognition whipped his indignation: she was Leslie Kinnear's maid-servant, Mora. Harper had flirted with her just days ago. Successfully.

Time resumed sluggishly. His eye stung; he pushed at it and his hand came away red, but his mind was working clearly to the point of pain: colors bright, the edges of things sharp like drawn lines, every noise perfectly distinct and fraught with information, and it seemed Harper could read intentions before people acted upon them, they moved so slowly and deliberately.

The table was askew, pushed to an awkward angle in respect to the rectangle of the room, and there was a trailing length of canvas draped across it like an old tablecloth. Harper could see feet on the other side, the boots of the man and the scuffed sandals of the two women, all standing near Miss Leslie's tidy shoes. He pushed the rifle aside, gained his hands and knees, and darted under the table, attacking from below. The man looked down at him, surprised, and he swung his sword down to fend him off, but Harper knew exactly what Sharpe needed. He struck quickly, ignoring the others and grappling Leslie Kinnear around the knees, bringing her down hard and dragging her under the table and out of Sharpe's field of fire. He rolled back in time to see Sharpe fire. The butt slammed into his shoulder, spinning him back staggering into the wall, but the blast had done its job. Mora, the man, and the other women slammed into the opposite wall, and then tumbled woodenly to the floor. Harper patted Leslie Kinnear's shoulder, cradling her face away from their torn bodies an arm's length away.

*

Sharpe fetched the men himself, and they escorted Mr. Kinnear and the red-eyed Leslie down the lane. Sharpe held Harper back to help gather up papers strewn about the room, papers that had been taken from the mule's packs and Harper assumed were full of war secrets and other such nonsense. But as the escort tramped away Sharpe told him to sit, so he sat on a scarred old chair that belonged to the scarred old dinning table. Sharpe was quiet; brewing some upset. Harper expected to be reprimanded for disobeying orders. Harsh words, a threat of no rum, or the like, never carried out. Harper had his ace -- Hogan's order to disobey.

But Sharpe didn't reprimand him. He had a strip of cloth in his hand, poured water from his canteen on it, and swabbed at Harper's brow. The white cloth was made red quickly. Harper rolled his eyes to follow Sharpe's hand but he could see only the dark spears of his brown hair thick with his own blood. It was easier to watch Sharpe, who did not meet his gaze but worked intently with his cloth. When it was wholly red he threw it on the floor, picked up a clean one, wet it, drew it down the side of Harper's face, resting his other hand on Harper's shoulder. "Why'd you come, Pat?" he asked. "I told you not to."

Harper had heard every shade of emotion in that voice, or thought he had. This was new: soft, angry, personal. Hogan's order was large in his mind, but he said, "I heard the cuckoo."

The cloth stilled, and Sharpe stared at Harper. "You heard a bloody bird?"

"I heard the cuckoo as I came through the trees, plain as plain, speaking to me, so he was."

"You're serious, aren't you?"

"Aye, a cuckoo calling from the right. Almost as lucky as you, sir, so it is."

Sharpe's hand on his shoulder tightened, clutching the worn jacket. "Jesus bloody wept."

Harper drew breath to respond but Sharpe shook him. "Shut up, Pat. Just -- don't say another damned word." He cleaned the blood away, tilted Harper's face into the waning light from the window to examine the wound, and wrapped a bandage round his head, pulling it tight.

Harper tried again. "Sir --"

"Get up."

Sharpe's tone was harsh, his face cruel. It was as if the effects of the bullet finally hit Harper, confusing the world around him. The day was failing, making grainy and dim the corners in the old house. And Sharpe snapped again. "Get up! 'Shun!"

Harper scrambled to his feet and stood rigid, swaying a little because the floor seemed to rock ever so slightly, less from the throbbing in his head than the leaden weight in his gut. Sharpe's displeasure with him.

"Sir, I --"

"Shut up." Sharpe paced back and turned to regard him. He dug the heel of his hand into his shoulder. Harper knew it hurt. The great gun threw seven bullets, as lethal as a small cannon and with a kick strong enough to throw a man to the ground. Harper was proud he could shoot it and take the blow. He loved it because it was a gift from Sharpe. "I want you to think back, Sergeant. I want you to think good and hard to the terms of your rank."

Harper blinked. Terms? Time blurred some things but he remembered Major Blas Vivar had come to him asking for help to bring about a miracle. The details had captured Harper's fancy: a blessed flag, the promise of a warrior-saint's return, and he liked feeling as though he lived inside a story. Vivar had lauded him for his prowess as a fighter, a thing he knew as well as he knew his own hands, but the telling of it, the pride he felt to hear this admirable man place value on his ability, made him face the possibility that he could be the kind of man to help bring about miracles. And as it happened Vivar had been right: he was such a man, and so was Sharpe.

"Do you remember? That cold winter day? The wind came across the miles of Spain as if it could blow some sense into us, but it didn't." Harper remembered. They had spent what seemed like years cold, hungry, hopeless. Sharpe stepped close. "And I said you’re my sergeant, Harper, until I say otherwise."

"Aye. As long as you need me and want me, you said. I remember." Harper smiled. "I was angry at the time. I didn't want to be a sergeant."

"But you took the stripes, and by God, you'd better keep that promise." Harper was again surprised by Sharpe's emotion -- he nearly trembled, as if from the after-effects of battle. Violence had been done this afternoon, but not the full fury of a skirmish line, dozens of men fighting, the chaos of artillery, muskets, killing, screams, dying, blood. Harper had seen Sharpe in the mindless rage of battle, and this wasn't it.

"I mean to keep it --" said Harper.

"I thought that bitch had blown your head off, Pat. You rushed right into the blast."

"My head's harder than that, sir," he said. "And I knew I'd be fine. I knew soon as I heard my cuckoo."

Sharpe swore viciously and turned away. He stomped to the door, murderously angry Harper could tell. Finally he turned back. "You and your God-damned superstitions. Portents and bird calls! You wanted to come with me today because the sky wasn't right." He worried the hilt of his sword. "God knows I shouldn't be surprised. I bought your service with a Spanish gonfalon just to satisfy some half-arsed superstition."

"It wasn't some half-arsed superstition that bought you my service," he said. "Sir."

"You can wear those and say that?" Sharpe came forward with the terrible speed of attack and snatched at the dirty white stripes on Harper's arm, stripes made from the same silk as the gonfalon.

Anger burned away the confusion. "See, and that is why you'll never be a proper officer, so it is."

"And I suppose that's why you disobeyed orders." Sharpe's eyes narrowed. His scarred face looked severe, and when he spoke the anger in his voice was cold. Deadly. Yet Harper was certain Sharpe wanted to ask why will I never be a proper officer? and he was just as sure Sharpe wouldn't ask, no matter how much the question ate at him. Sharpe stepped close, and his breath cooled Harper's cheek. "If you wanted to get rid of me now you'd have to shoot me in the back."

"No sir." Harper kept his eyes front but smiled grimly. "If it came to that we'd kill each other face to face, so we would. But it won't."

"And why won't it come to that?"

Because I'd not be wanting to get rid of you, you daft bugger, no more than you'd want to get rid of me, thought Harper, but he knew this whole line of conversation had run out of their control, and he regretted losing his temper and flinging the idea of a proper officer in Sharpe's face. It was a tender spot on Sharpe's pride, one he held close, and only few saw. Instead he said, "This war won't ever end."

"That doesn't matter. It's not an answer."

"Sure it is, because unless England goes to war with Ireland I'll not have a reason to get rid of you ever." Harper turned his head and looked Sharpe in the eye. "Nor would I. But I know what you're reaching for. The reason you're no proper officer is honest respect, sir. Respect and trust. You know the men can fight; the men know you can fight; and we all know we can trust each other to do just that. And we know that with you, right here," Harper dared much and touched his own chest over his heart, "better than with any other officer."

"Fight."

"Fight, aye. And win."

"Christ." Sharpe raked his hair back. It was too long; he needed a cut, and the women were a week behind them. "And for that you disobeyed me."

"I didn't disobey orders, sir. Major Hogan sent me after you."

"You know I don't give a bugger about orders." He stared flintily at Harper. "You disobeyed me."

"How and why I got these stripes go both ways, sir," Harper said, the words flat in his mouth. "I'm your sergeant, and you're my officer. I go with you. I follow you."

"Pat." Sharpe looked lost. He pulled at his shaggy hair. Harper would offer to trim it up. He knew where to find scissors, and he had done it for him before. But he would wait a day or two. "Stand at ease, Pat; sit. Sit." He urged him back into the chair, and then walked to the window and stood there, his back to Harper, a black shadow against red light.

*

As twilight darkened Harper and Sharpe picked up the scattered papers in the old house together, but not with the usual ease. They worked without talking; the silence was empty, not companionable. They loaded the packs on the mule and caught up with the Rifles, and though he had gotten in the last dig, Harper felt he'd lost the argument they'd had, if it had been an argument. He still wasn't sure. He had hopes the night would ease things between them. If not, then he'd arrange to get them both pissing drunk. That always worked.

The Kinnears had calmed -- no more tears or antics -- and when the Rifles saw their officer and sergeant rejoin them they nodded. Someone asked about camping for the night, or would they march through to town. Tongue glanced at Harper's head and said, "That's a pretty ribbon. Your swain buy it for you at the fair?"

"It's my prize for not ducking proper, so it is."

"Well-deserved," added Sharpe, and the others laughed. Sharpe didn't.

They camped that night, and the next day Sharpe and his men took the errant Kinnears to the inn where Hogan stayed. Hogan congratulated them on their success and expediency: he had thought it would take several days, not just one, and he thanked them by sending all but Sharpe and Harper to a wine shop. He congratulated the Kinnears on their survival as well, commiserated with them on the treachery of their servants, then thanked them for the papers brought so far on their reliable mule and sent them on their way as well. Soon as they were gone he dumped the leather packs of papers in a corner and said, "Net's get to that mule, shall we?"

Bemused, Harper and Sharpe followed him. The mule was in the corral behind the inn, ambling contentedly and chewing on the grass. Hogan clucked at him, offered an apple, and the beast approached him obligingly. Hogan fed him the apple, petted his nose, told him he was a handsome, smart creature, and removed the dusty halter. He cut at the thickest band with a wicked little knife and teased out a piece of folded paper.

Sharpe swore. "All our effort was for that?"

"Not all." Hogan looked affronted. "I didn't fancy leaving the Kinnears to die, worthless innocents or not. Nor, I think, did you."

Sharpe smiled grimly at that, and Harper, standing one step behind him, smiled as well. He knew there was something of chivalry in Sharpe: a core of hard honesty and goodness firm despite being born nothing more than a fatherless guttersnipe. There was luck, too: Sharpe was lucky, and Harper knew that as well, whether Sharpe wanted to believe him or not. God knew he pushed that luck hard enough.

"So tell me," said Sharpe. "Did you send Harper after me?"

Hogan looked up from unfolding his paper. "If I did?"

"It nearly got him killed."

"You sound so fierce!" Hogan lowered the paper. "But you can't be surprised. There are no promises of safety for any soldier."

"He's mine to kill. Not yours."

Hogan's face showed surprise, anger, and he opened his mouth to say something but stopped, closed it, brushed at his jacket. "I respect your feelings in this, Sharpe, but remember: we're all of us subject to the whims of war -- specifically what I ask you to do, and what Sir Wellesley asks you to do."

Sharpe stepped closer. "Just keep in mind you're to value his life as much as mine." Hogan shrugged.

"I'm not sure you're doing me any favors, sir," Harper said. "I've seen the missions he sends you on."

"And you follow him anyhow." Hogan laughed. "A gem among sergeants. Don't ever let this one get away, Lieutenant."

"Not as long as I need him."

And want him, added Harper silently. He still did not understand all that provoked Sharpe yesterday, though he had some formless thoughts that came from his heart. Sharpe needed him and wanted him to be his sergeant, but Sharpe valued him, too. There was fear in him that he might lose Harper: a troublesome fear for a soldier, Harper thought, but one that went to the core of that strange value Sharpe placed on him. He thought back to the day he accepted his stripes, how much it had cost and given him, and he wondered if it was as much as Sharpe's price.

*

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